Students and ExCollege describe motivations, benefits of peer-teaching

What brings a student to get up out of their seat and in front of the classroom to become a peer teacher is not a certain amount of expertise, but rather a desire to create a classroom around a topic of interest. As architects of their courses, students take the reins on what is taught while receiving guidance on how to teach as peer teachers through the Experimental College (ExCollege).

Since its inception, the ExCollege strives to bolster Tufts’ academic offerings by giving students the opportunity to take courses that often diverge from the beaten path. According to its website, the ExCollege was founded in 1964 by former University President Nils Wessell, with a board composed of students and faculty working together. In the following decades, the ExCollege developed the Explorations and Perspectives program, taught by juniors and seniors who would serve as the advisors for incoming first-years. In addition, the ExCollege offered peer-taught ExCollege courses in the spring, which are open to students in all years.

ExCollege Director Howard Woolf said that the college has been working to meet three main goals since its formation.

“When Wessell first started the program in 1964, it aimed to get courses into the curriculum that were beyond the scope of the main Tufts curriculum, to bring lecturers and teachers from the larger Boston community and to get a board with equal numbers of students and faculty,” he said. “The main idea was to be student-centered, above all else, and this is something we have worked towards since then.”

According to Woolf, the courses are based on topics that students want to be discussed in the community and often reflect the broader societal climate at the time they are offered.

“I like to think of the courses each semester as empty vessels,” Woolf said. “This is not a doctrinaire organization that determines what goes in them and there is no exact definition as to what can and cannot be taught. Often, the culture of the time and what’s going on in society determine what the students decide to teach, but we encourage anybody who thinks they can teach to apply and get their ideas out there.”

Woolf also mentioned that the ExCollege is unique because it is one of the only programs in the nation where students can design and create their own courses on the topics they wish to teach, allowing them to spread discussion and intellectual curiosity throughout the university. He said these pass/fail courses are primarily designed to increase awareness on a topic on which an instructor — either a visiting lecturer or a student — has a level of expertise.

He mentioned that students have a large amount of leeway with which they can decide upon their topic, and this often contributes to the interdisciplinary nature of the ExCollege.

“We do have to be careful with how we approve the topics, [though], to make sure that we are not stepping on the toes of any of the departments,” Woolf said.

Another defining factor of the college is the Explorations and Perspectives program, which combines seminar courses for first-years with an advising component. The Explorations and Perspectives courses are taught on a wide range of topics, but differ in their primary focus. Both types ultimately seek to further discussion in the Tufts community, but the Perspectives courses are centered mainly on the study of different types of media and their societal implications.

“When the first-years who take the Explorations/Perspectives courses start their courses, they also get an advisor,” Woolf said. “Many programs in the academic map of the United States have these programs that try to cater to first-year students, but they often fall apart halfway through because there’s nothing that is tied to those advising programs. Our program has the course component, which allows students to see the passion of the instructor, get excited about the course and engage with their advisors for the full semester.”

The process of teaching these courses is intense, but it involves close interaction with the ExCollege board and equal involvement from both teachers and students, according to WoolfWoolf explained that prospective peer teachers must submit a 13-week syllabus along with an application stating their interest in teaching. After this, they must go through an interview with the ExCollege administrators, followed by a meeting with the board. This must all occur during the semester before the intended course.

“Once they start teaching, the teachers of the Explorations/Perspectives courses and the open classes in the fall must [also] take a seminar with either me or Amy Goldstein, the associate director of the ExCollege. During these courses, we cover pedagogy and techniques for peer teaching.” Woolf said.

The courses taught thus far have been instrumental in furthering the original goals of the ExCollege, fostering discussion about topics that don’t fit directly into the standard academic curriculum. The topics of this spring’s peer-taught courses vary greatly in scope and focus. Courses include Disrupting Education: The Future of K-12, Activism in Authoritarian States: A Global Perspective, Tech Trends and Careers: Tufts and Beyond, and Persuasive Science: Writing for Skeptics.

This is also evident in a course taught during the fall semester of the 2016–2017 academic year by current seniors Pranav Menon and Kyle Paul. Their course, Introduction to the Force: Star Wars in Pop Culture, looked at the Star Wars movies in the context of film and media at large. Paul said that the class stimulated conversation about the themes, motifs and details of the Star Wars movies.

“It was great to talk about the Star Wars movies in a lot of detail with freshmen for whom we were also like second advisors,” Paul, who is majoring in film and media studies and child study and human development, said. “We talked about all sorts of things regarding the movies, watching clips, exploring the narratives again and seeing the connections of the stories to religion, politics, gender and media today.”

During the upcoming spring semester, senior Kinsey Drake, a biochemistry major, will teach a course called Food Chemistry: Exploring Cooking Through the Lens of Science. She said she has had preparation and support from the ExCollege in designing her course.

Drake mentioned that the guidance from the website and the ExCollege staff gave her a sense of what the classes typically entailed, what she needed to have prepared in order to teach a course and how to set up a course that is relevant to different audiences.

“Taking a course [in the ExCollege] before deciding to teach mine was useful because I could see what worked and what didn’t. I was able to learn what it was like to cater to many different interests and majors, and how to keep an interdisciplinary focus in the courses,” Drake said. “Though the ones I took were taught by visiting professors and not other students, I [learned that] the classes depend pretty heavily on what the class is like and what the students are like.”

Paul added that being a Perspectives leader allowed him to gain valuable skills and experiences through teaching, which have helped him prepare for other leadership roles.

“I never envisioned myself as a teacher before this course, so for me to be able to be an advisor and a teacher with Pranav [Menon] was different,” he said. “It was cool to have a leadership position where freshmen looked up to us … and the experience being a Perspectives leader also helped me this year in my position as a Community Development Assistant.”

Woolf said that peer-taught courses, like those taught by Drake, Menon and Paul, are important because they encourage questioning.

“The students who teach the course are not Master’s students, or PhDs. They don’t have the experience big lecturers at Tufts do, and we don’t expect them to have complete mastery and knowledge of their topics. They are encouraged to ask questions, not give explanations, and the syllabus they give us reflects this,” he said. “This creates the sense of thinking about the topic together, rather than lecturing, and this allows the ExCollege to stimulate discussion in the community.”

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